Underrated Animated Films Day 1: 30 Days of Animated Films

(disclaimer: all opinions presented are my own, and nobody else’s)

Animated movies are incredibly difficult to make.

I mean, really, really hard.

Every tiny piece of the world has to be planned, built, surfaced and placed from scratch, for computer-animation even more than traditional cel animation. Technology and talent require a huge investment in time and money, but if the last several years have been any indication, then the payoff can be massive.

With all that pressure and investment, studios make every effort to produce films that appeal to as large an audience as possible. And sometimes, they fail. Occasionally those failures can be spectacular. (We’ll talk about that little gem later in the month — I’ll let you guess which category it will fit in)

The studios and their financial backers have a pretty clear definition of success — if you’ve got a lot of butts in seats, and you make a profit, then the film is successful.

The Lorax. Not underrated.

The Lorax, a wildly-successful animated film. Copyright Illumination Entertainment and Universal Studios

Critical reception doesn’t really enter into the equation, although come Oscar-season, a nomination or two can do wonders for your DVD sales.

With the huge investment involved, once in a while a terrible film makes a ton of money, but the reverse seems to be rarely true. The bombs are usually pretty bad — but there are definitely exceptions. So here’s your question for Day One:

What animated films deserved better than they got?

Second Runner-Up: Beowulf

What do you do with a problem like Robert Zemeckis?

The guy has directed some of my favorite movies, including the Back to the Future trilogy, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and Forrest Gump. Those practically make up my checklist of movies that you have to like for me to consider you a decent human being. ( I’m kidding. Mostly. )

Starting with The Polar Express in 2004, Zemeckis has been deeply involved with the creation and utilization of motion-capture technology.

He's not any less creepy in motion. CG Tom Hanks will haunt your dreams.

He’s not any less creepy in motion. CG Tom Hanks will haunt your dreams. Copyright Shangri-La Entertainment / Warner Bros.

The results have been somewhat… mixed. The Polar Express was a well-intentioned train wreck (see what I did there?) that had audiences and critics split. The motion-capture technology left his characters lifeless and dull, in part because their bodies moved in a more more lifelike way than their own faces. The Uncanny Valley was practically invented to describe this film. Zemeckis also directed 2009’s A Christmas Carol, which similarly split the critics, although the performances were much better-recieved. Both Polar Express and Christmas Carol barely eked out a profit, and might’ve even been small losses with their marketing budgets figured in. 2012’s Mars Needs Moms was an unmitigated disaster, which Zemeckis had the good foresight to produce and not direct.

In the middle of this, Zemeckis directed his most ambitious motion-capture project yet: an animated version of the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf.

Beowulf, still lookin' good from 2007

Beowulf – an underrated film. Copyright Shangri-La Entertainment / Paramount

Beowulf was a huge risk — the film was rated PG-13, and so far as I’m aware, it’s the only fully-computer-animated film produced in the US with an adult target audience. It was also presented in stereoscopic 3D, which had not yet found its post-Avatar wide appeal. The subject matter is grim and dark, with a screenplay co-authored by Neil Gaiman. It was the kind of gamble that I really, really wish had paid off.

Pretty darn good for 2007

Looking pretty darn good, even by today’s standards

Zemeckis demanded character models that looked extremely close to his actors, and I have to say, the visuals are extremely well-done. The Uncanny Valley is still a problem, but it’s easier to ignore here than in either Christmas Carol or Polar Express.

The film is a solid adaptation of the Beowulf story, maintaining its basic structure while modernizing its pace. J.R.R Tolkien of Lord of the Rings fame might have enjoyed the film — he was the scholar who brought Beowulf out of an academic vogue that insisted on treating the monsters in Beowulf as metaphors. Tolkien preferred to see them as literal, tear-your-face-off monsters in a folklore setting, an interpretation very much on-display in the film version. The designs for Grendel’s mother and the dragon are particularly well done.

... and how.

… and how.

And yeah, it deserved a lot better than it got. The film was a minor success for Paramount, grossing just under $200,000,000 world-wide, with an estimated budget of $170,000,000. It was relatively well-received by critics, but the film seems to have been largely forgotten. All the same, it’s definitely worth a second look if you want an animated film with a little more oomph.

First Runner Up: Brave

Oh, Pixar, the once-unassailable bastion of all that is good about animated films (I admit, I am something of a fanboy)

Even with a minor hiccup from the critics with Cars, Pixar seemed to be incapable of producing a bad movie for years — and let’s be honest, Cars wasn’t that bad. It just didn’t seem to fit in the same list as Toy Story and Monsters, Inc.

The Pixar steamroller kept on chugging, until 2011, when they hit their first critical stumble. Cars 2 was very good to look at, but its plot and characterizations left a lot to be desired. I won’t get into details now, although Cars 2 will definitely show up later this month.

Cars 2 went on to make a very comfortable margin on ticket sales, and Walt-only-knows how much off of merchandising.

Mater ruins everything. Again.

Yeah, THIS guy. Oh, I have things to say about THIS guy. Copyright Disney / PIXAR

So after Cars 2, Pixar was poised to redeem itself with another heartwarming, tear-jerking, brilliant masterpiece to win back our good graces.

Early indications were not good. “The Bear and the Bow” seemed like a more Disney-esque topic to tackle, with its roots in Celtic folklore. There was even a princess. One had to assume that she was pining for a life “somewhere out there”, because that’s what princesses do. Still, with Pixar at the helm, I was certain that it would be great.

The title was changed to “Brave” and rumors swirled around Pixar’s first female director Brenda Chapman getting the boot. Still, Ratatouille went through a similar upheaval, and turned out fine.

The movie was released to a pretty resounding “Eh. It was alright.”

The critics seemed ready to pounce, seeing Brave as Pixar’s first less-than-perfect creation outside of the Cars franchise. With the mild success and mixed reviews of 2013’s Monsters University, it seems like the critical golden era for Pixar is at an end.

Wasted potential? Sure, but still a good movie.

Wasted potential? Sure, but still a good movie. Copyright Disney / PIXAR

Brave made back its budget, and with foreign markets still turned a tidy profit off of box-office returns alone.

Personally, I let my disappointment poison this movie for me for a while. There were some strange choices in the narrative, and the whole thing felt like it was trying to say something important, but didn’t quite know how. The witch in the woods seemed an especially gimmicky addition to a story that needed to be firmly rooted in its own world. At some point I plan to write a full review of this film, but for now, suffice to say that it didn’t live up to the Pixar hype, or its own potential. And that was really frustrating for a lot of people, myself included.

But it deserved better. In Merida, Pixar created a more interesting, smarter, stronger character than almost any of the Disney princesses I can think of. The dynamic between Merida and her mother is a hugely refreshing change of pace for a media culture saturated in daddy issues. Whatever its shortcomings, it was still a better film than many were willing to give it credit for. I just hope that Pixar and Chapman are willing to take that kind of risk again.

Here is Merida in a genius bit of composition - she's the highest thing in the frame, literally dividing the old generation from the new. The film is full of little gems like this.

Here is Merida in a genius bit of composition – she’s the highest thing in the frame, literally dividing the old generation from the new. The film is full of little gems like this.

And the winner is…

Remember in 2010, there was a trailer you saw that looked kind of neat? It had owls in it, like, owls wearing armor, which was kinda weird but kinda cool-looking? Yeah, you know, that one. The one you never got around to actually seeing, and forgot existed?

Owls in Armor! YEAH! Copyright Animal Logic / Warner Bros.

Owls in Armor! YEAH! Copyright Animal Logic / Warner Bros.

This is Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole – my pick for the top underrated animated film.

I was pretty skeptical about this movie. The trailer looked pretty, but the title and its connection to a young-adult fantasy series seemed like a pretty bad recipe all-told. Ultimately I went to see it at a second-run theater on the cheap and I was really, really surprised. The story was intriguing if not exactly… plausible… the characters were endearing, and hoo boy did the visuals shine. Honestly, I think Zach Snyder should direct more animated films, his style lends itself to the kinds of fantastic worlds and situations that animation allows.

Owls in even more armor!

Owls in even more armor!

There really isn’t a whole lot to say about the movie, except that the criticism I most often hear seems very petty to me: “how do they make armor? they’re birds!”. C’mon, guys, suspend your disbelief just a little.

Maybe it’s not an enduring classic, and sure, the concept is a little silly and the plot devices a little arbitrary… But if you haven’t seen it, give it a try. It might surprise you. It definitely surprised me.

Watch this movie with the sound off if you have to, every frame is a work of art.

Watch this movie with the sound off if you have to, every frame is a work of art.

What do you think?

I want to know what you think! Comment here, or swing by Facebook or Twitter to have your say! Which animated films do you think never got a fair shake?

Tomorrow: What animated films make you happy?


  1. The 3D stereoscopic was well played for “Legend of the Guardians” especially the main character flying through the raindrops. This is was one of the movies where using stereoscopic imaging immersed me in the world instead of it being used as an after thought and seeing the movie as a pop-up book.

    • Ed Whetstone says:

      I find that movies that involve flying are especially good in stereo — How to Train your Dragon was marvelous in 3D


  1. […] filmmaking, then it’s doubly true of animated films. I’ve touched on this on Day 1 and Day 2. Because of the expense and the exacting nature of the work, traditional wisdom says that […]

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